Sunday, October 11, 2009

The controversial founding of Columbus Day

"One may not think of the month of daylight savings time, breast cancer awareness, and Oktoberfest as particularly controversial, but beneath the surface of several Catholic holidays in October are truths and memories that bring a maelstrom of protest from the modern world," writes Michael P. Foley in "The Controversial Holidays of October" (Latin Mass magazine, Summer 2009). In a previous article, Foley already discussed one of these: the Feast of the Holy Rosary's commemoration of the defeat of the Turks at Lepanto (October 7). In the current issue, he turns to two more "October surprises" -- Columbus Day (October 12 or the second Monday in October) and All Hallows' Eve (October 31).1 Here we limit our attention to Columbus Day:
I should probably be given the stake for discussing a secular holiday in a column on the liturgical year, but Columbus Day merits our attention for several reasons. First the holiday owes its existence to the efforts of U.S. Catholic citizens, particularly the Knights of Columbus. In the 1900s the Knights lobbied state legislatures throughout the country to make the anniversary of America's discovery a holiday; not only did most states acquiesce, but the federal government eventually did as well, first as a national holiday in 1937 and then as a legal holiday (on which banks close) in 1971. Though they were instituted as a fraternal benefits organization, the Knights of Columbus were also keen to dispel anti-Catholic prejudice in the United States. One way to meet this goal was to emphasize America's debt to Catholic figures, starting with its papist discoverer. Not coincidentally, this fraternity, founded by an Irish priest, was named not after Saint Patrick but after the daring Italian who reached the shores of our hemisphere on a Spanish ship.

The Knights' strategy of claiming Columbus as a most Catholic of heroes was also a well-aimed counterattack. American historians had tried mightily to turn the famous seafarer into an Enlightenment figure, a secular saint championing scientific progress in the face of a superstitious Church still clinging to outdated ideas of a "flat earth." As it turns out, Columbus had nothing to do with the flat-earth debate; the story was invented out of whole cloth by Washington Irving in 1828 and later used as anti-Catholic propaganda to "prove" that that clerical religion was inherently hostile to rational inquiry.2 Queen Isabella's geographical advisers knew the globe was globular; they rejected Columbus' proposal because they had a much more accurate grasp of it's massive circumference, rightly concluding that his plan to reach China via a western route in a matter of weeks was unsound.

Given the prevalence of the anti-Catholic flat-earth myth, it is not surprising that Pope Leo XIII celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus' maiden voyage with these stirring (and perhaps overly generous) remarks:
But there is, besides, another reason, a unique one, why We consider that this immortal achievement should be recalled by Us with memorial words. For Columbus is ours; since if a little consideration be given to the particular reason of his design in exploring the mare tenebrosum ... it is indubitable that the Catholic faith was [his] strongest motive ... so that for this reason also the whole human race owes not a little to the Church.3
Take that, Know Nothings!

Pall Over the Holiday

Ironically, after winning the battle for Columbus Day, many Catholics today would prefer not to be associated with either the man or his holiday. While most Latin American countries commemorate the date of Columbus' discovery as the Día de la Raza (the Day of the Race, that is, the day the races met), Hugo Chávez's Venezuela observes observes Día de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Similarly, Ward Churchill, the Colorado professor who made headlines for calling the victims of September 11 "little Eichmans,"4 has led the American Indian Movement's protests against the Columbus Day in Denver.

What Chavez and Churchill, in their characteristically understated ways, are alluding to the bleak events that followed Columbus' discovery. Despite the friendliness of the natives, Columbus' men initiated hostilities with them that culminated in a massacre, while Columbus himself enslaved a thousand Indians and instituted the repartimiento system that led to the serfdom of countless others for years to come. Combined with a wave of unintentionally imported diseases the local immune system had never encountered before, such treatment quickly decimated the Native American population.

Assessing Columbus

What, then, should we make of Columbus in light of his spotty record? I suggest five things.

First, it is clear that Columbus was not a good administrator on the land, and his incompetence led to cruelty. In fairness, however, before his undisciplined men destroyed relations with the native Taino or Arawaks, his goal was to protect them from the cannibalistic Caribs (one of the most savage peoples in the Americas) who were fast advancing. Indeed the Caribs remind us that the first step in assessing the Columbian legacy is overcoming any assumption that either side in the conflict has a monopoly on evil.

Second, it is important to remember that many of Columbus' contemporaries also deplored his deeds. Queen Isabel certainly did, which is why Columbus' third return to Spain was in chains, and Spanish law, thanks in large part to the Church's teaching about the full humanity of Native Americans, consistently condemned the actions of rapacious colonists. This is significant, for no other civilization has shown such a capacity for healthy self-criticism as the Christian. Indeed, the shrill condemnations of a Chavez or a Churchill are possible only because of the tradition of public self-examination first developed in Catholic societies.

Third, despite tragic costs, the benefits of European contract with the New World did far more good than harm. This is particularly true in the realm of evangelization. Columbus' genuine zeal to convert all peoples to Christianity should be commended rather than condemned. To depict all New World conversions as forced and foreign is, ironically, to patronize people of color, who were and are every bit as capable of seeing the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Gospel as their unwashed invaders.

Fourth, despite his flaws Columbus was a devout Catholic who, as Pope Leo XIII noted, was motivated by his Faith. His favorite prayers was Jesus cum Maria sit nobis in via -- "may Jesus, along with Mary, be with us on the way."5 Columbus chose to depart into the unknown the morning after August 2, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels, so that his men could celebrate this Marian feast with their families; he even made sure that they received confession and Holy Communion in order to obtain the plenary indulgence available that day.6 Columbus' prayers were apparently answered: his tiny fleet reached land on October 12, the day after the Feast of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin.

Finally, Columbus Day praises not Columbus' explorations on land but his exploits at sea. We know that a single-minded man convinced the monarchs of Spain to fund an extremely hazardous journey with little likelihood of return, and that he pulled it off, not once but four times. We know that he was exceptionally courageous and resourceful, and we know that he was an outstanding seaman. There is nothing wrong with raising a glass to genuine courage and persistence, as long as one does not go on to use these to excuse other crimes and misdemeanors. I wonder if much of the animus against Columbus today really springs from a contemporary disdain for honor that would like to purge manhood of its chivalry and daring. As the historian William Carroll notes, "It is right to criticize the failings [of heroes], but wrong to deny their greatness and the inspiration they can give."7

And if there is any note of sorrow or regret to be struck on this otherwise celebratory occasion, it should not be fore the exceptional evil of the white man or the Catholic faith but for the universal darkness in man's heart so aptly explained by the doctrine of original sin. Yet, thanks be to God, this spiritual blight is never allowed to dwarf the triumph of the Cross, which providentially uses both vessels of honor and dishonor to meet its goals.

What to Do

How should one celebrate Columbus Day? In 1892 Pope Leo decreed that the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus' discovery should be marked with a Solemn High Mass of the Most Holy Trinity either on October 12 or on the following Sunday.8 (This was mandatory for Spain, Italy, and the two Americas, and recommended for the rest of the world, since "it is fitting that an even from which all have derived benefit should be piously and gratefully commemorated by all"). Certainly Mass would be a good idea today as well, along with a fervent prayer for the spiritual future of both the Old and New Worlds. And all of the documents I have cited are worth reading for more information on Christopher Columbus.

Perhaps one could even enjoy these readings with one of the items rumored to have returned with Columbus on his first voyage: tobacco. I would recommend a pipe for the occasion, as a cigarette is far too lowly a thing for honoring either the noble savage or the noble explorer. As for food, one could turn to any of the nationalities involved: American, Italian, Spanish, or even Caribbean. And for the little ones, miniature Niñas, Santa Marias, and Pintas can be made out of walnut shells, toothpick masts, and paper sails and used to adorn a cake or have a race in the bathtub.(To be continued ...)

  1. "The Feast of Our Fearsome Lady," TLM 16:4 (Fall 2007), pp. 60-61. [back]

  2. For the fascinating history of this myth, see Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians(New York: Praeger, 1991). [back]

  3. Quarto Abeunte Saeculo (1892), 2, italics added. [back]

  4. He has also been sanctioned by his university for repeated acts of "serious research misconduct." [back]

  5. For more on Columbus' fascinating Catholicism, see Fr. John Hardon's lectures on Columbus at [back]

  6. The indulgence of the Portiuncula. [back]

  7. "Honoring Chrisopher Columbus," [back]

  8. Quarto Abeunte Saeculo (1892), 9. [back]

[Michael P. Foley is associate professor of patristics at Baylor University. He is author of Wedding Rites: A Complete Guide to Traditional Vows, Music, Ceremonies, Blessings, and Interfaith Services(Eerdmans, 2008) and Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Our present post was excerpted from Dr. Foley's article, "The Controversial Holidays of October," Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer 2009), pp. 36-39, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Latin Mass, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]

New Catholic offers has posted a copy of Leo XIII's encyclical on the Columbus quadricentennial, Quarto abeunte saeculo highlighting those parts of the text of special interest at "COLUMBUS NOSTER EST" (Rorate Caeli, October 12, 2009).

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